by Miriam Sander
Gene Wars: The Politics of Biotechnology
by Kristin Dawkins
Seven Stories Press, New York 1997
Kristin Dawkins opens her recent book, Gene Wars: The Politics of Biotechnology, by reminding the reader of the many hungry people in the United States. She says "I myself have plenty to eat [and] often eat too much. But there are millions of people in this country who are malnourished and some are even starving." This is certainly a fact that is easy for those who are not hungry to forget or ignore. Because the food in our grocery stores and markets is seemingly at our fingertips, we also easily ignore the politics of food production.
In this short, concise and very readable book, Kristin Dawkins discusses many factors that affect what food is in our stores, how and by whom it is grown, and who profits from food production. Dawkins explains the complex issues that impact upon the present and future state of world hunger, while touching upon several ways in which modern biotechnology is now involved in this picture. Thus a more appropriate title for the book might be "Food Wars: the Politics of Food Production," instead of "Gene Wars: the Politics of Biotechnology." On the whole, the goal of this book is to communicate a loud and strongly stated message of alarm to those of us who ignore this issue. The message is that there is a significant threat to the long term potential of farmers to successfully provide for the food needs of the world, and that this threat exists due to the aggressive capitalism of international agribusiness corporations.
Dawkins speaks early in the book as an advocate for the human "right to adequate food." The US is legally obligated to the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which describes the human right to a standard of living including adequate food. However, in 1886 the US Supreme Court issued a decision giving US corporations equivalent rights to individual American citizens. Dawkins argues that US policy indicates a belief that "what's good for corporations is good for America," and further, in some cases it indicates an abandonment of the rights of the individual person. One example cited, which is consistent with her analysis, is the US voting record at the 1996 World Food Summit sponsored by the United Nations. At that time, the US abandoned its commitment to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in blocking the passage of a document supporting the "Right to Food." In contrast, the US signed and supports the major international trade treaties. According to Dawkins, these treaties are "designed to enforce free trade as if it were the only legitimate basis for global governance."
Global free trade agreements are negotiated every sixth year through GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade). In the last round of GATT, called the Uruguay Round, the participating countries formed the World Trade Organization to oversee world trade issues. The participants also signed several agreements that may have significant impact on world food production. One of the agreements applies to Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPs Agreement).
Dawkins underscores the current importance of property rights related to agricultural products. Until recently, agricultural patents primarily covered processes used to create agricultural products.
In contrast, the agribusinesses are now fighting over defining and owning intellectual property. One of their goals is to establish proprietary rights to genetically engineered plants and organisms. Through such rights, the corporations can control plant breeding, seed distribution, and farming practices on a world-wide scale. These patents hold profound implications for the individual farmer, for whom it could become illegal to simply harvest the seed of a crop he has planted one year for replanting in the following year.
If allowed to develop according to the whim of the transnational agribusiness corporations, the TRIPs Agreement could help destroy traditional farming practices around the world, and in so doing, violate farmer's rights. In addition to the human "right to adequate food," Dawkins advocates the farmer's "right to produce food, which entails access to land, water and seeds." Dawkins feels that the Uruguay Round Agreements threaten this right.
In the first Green Revolution, the modern farming practices of developed nations spread to third world countries that had not yet adopted them. In general, increased food production resulted, which benefited the recipient countries in some cases. However, Dawkins draws attention to the negative impacts of the first Green Revolution upon the recipient countries (for example, increased pest infestations with imported plant varieties, incidents of pesticide poisoning for peasant farmers). The second Green Revolution is defined as "the trend towards industrialized agriculture and the use of genetically engineered and genetically identical patented seed stock." Together, these trends are contributing to the loss of biodiversity, which could limit and degrade the earth's total food production capacity. This is another grave risk immediately at hand, to which Dawkins encourages her readers to respond.
The appendix to "Gene Wars" presents a list of 10 concerns that are the priorities of activists involved with global food security. The list provides an excellent summary of the main points of the book. Several of these important concerns are not mentioned in this review, including the following: development of a biosafety protocol; protection of the rights of indigenous peoples; establishment of international food safety standards and restrictions on export dumping. "Gene Wars," and especially its appendix, provides an important reference for any reader with interest in this subject.
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